John C. Culver, an Iowa Democrat remembered as politically courageous by former colleagues and whose 16 years in Congress began during the height of the Vietnam War, died late Wednesday at his home near Washington, D.C., following a long illness, according to family and friends. He was 86.
Raised in Cedar Rapids where he later forged a career in law, Culver was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1964 shortly after working as a legislative aide for Sen. Ted Kennedy, a teammate of Culver’s on the Harvard football team.
Culver spent 10 years in the House before he successfully ran for a U.S. Senate seat, which he held for a single term. After that, he worked as an attorney with a Washington-area law firm until 2009.
On Thursday, Culver’s son and former Iowa Gov. Chet Culver issued a family statement calling his father “a man of remarkable character” who led a life “of service to his family, to the state of Iowa, and to the country.”
“He lived his life thankful for the opportunity to serve, and he taught me the importance of service to others,” the former governor added. “While we are saddened to say goodbye to our father, we have only gratitude for his long life and for the example he set for us all.”
In 1980, Culver lost his Senate re-election bid to Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, now the state’s longest-serving senator.
Grassley on Thursday remembered Culver as “a tough competitor” in the 1980 election and a “devoted public servant.”
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“He was proud of his record and defended it, not sacrificing his stands for political expediency, and that deserves to be recognized,” Grassley said.
Former Democratic President Bill Clinton passed along condolences via Twitter, calling Culver “a smart, principled, progressive and tough public servant who represented his constituents with honor for 16 years.”
Culver’s childhood and early life was spent in Cedar Rapids, where he graduated from Franklin High School before earning a college degree in American government from Harvard University in 1954. Afterward, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps as an infantryman, seeing duty in the Philippines. He graduated from Harvard Law School, later becoming a member of the Linn County and Iowa state bar associations.
As an elected official, Culver defined himself as a civil libertarian. To that point, he recounted his “no” vote on a controversial 1967 bill that made flag burning a federal crime as one of his most important decisions as a lawmaker. He referred to it as a time where “my conscience and constituency were clearly in conflict.”
“I was convinced that, although most distasteful to me, the burning of the American flag was protected speech under the U.S. Constitution. I voted a lonely ‘no’ and only 15 congressmen out of 435 shared my position on the final roll call,” Culver said during a speech at Harvard.
“It taught me a valuable lesson: Do what one believes is right, rather than popular at the moment,” he added. “In my experience, such a practice is not only good for the soul, but will most likely ultimately be accepted and respected by the electorate and one’s colleagues.”
The U.S. Supreme Court later struck down flag desecration laws as unconstitutional.
Culver was in Cedar Rapids on April 12, 2016, for the naming of a City Hall Conference room in his honor. The room is on the third floor of City Hall, the former federal building that housed Culver’s office.
In remembering Culver on Thursday, Connie Birmingham of Marion said her introduction to politics came at age 19 while working on a Culver campaign.
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“He was an inspiration,” said Birmingham, who later worked as an aide for former U.S. Sen. Dick Clark, another Iowa Democrat. “He made you believe government was there to do good things and that we could do them together, that we could have opponents, not enemies.
“He was magnificent, fearless, brilliant,” she said. “And such an Iowan. I remember him inviting people up to his and his wife’s cabin in McGregor for well-timed, leaf-raking parties in the fall.”
Culver was a “big, beefy guy,” Birmingham said. When she heard of his death Thursday, she said she’d flashed on the time he’d campaigned in Marion with Bobby Kennedy, who wasn’t that big. “John had his big arms wrapped around Bobby,” she said.
Kay Halloran, a former state senator and Cedar Rapids mayor, remembered Culver’s passion.
“I’d be in the audience when he was giving a speech, getting wound up, his face so red I was afraid he was going to have a heart attack,” she said.
Later in life, Culver became active in higher education. He established the John. C. Culver Public Policy Institute at Simpson College south of Des Moines and was involved with the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington.
Culver is survived by Mary Jane Checchi, his wife of 34 years. He also leaves behind four children, including former Gov. Chet Culver, and eight grandchildren. He is to be buried in McGregor. Service details have not been announced.
The Gazette contributed to this article.